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  • The Socialist Design:Urban Dilemmas in Postwar Europe and the Soviet Union
  • Elidor Mëhilli (bio)

We programmed a system and it programmed us.1

—György Konrád, The City Builder

"We managed to rearrange the city down to the last grain of sand," declares György Konrád's frantic, impassionate, obsessive, idealistic city builder.2 He has gone through all the trials of communist rule: a distinctly bourgeois background, enchantment, postwar professional success, ambitious building assignments, arrest, imprisonment, disenchantment, and, finally, release from prison into a world without Stalin but still with total planning. His unnamed socialist city, like Konrád's text, is dense, polluted, sprawling, and layered. The scale of urban planning appears both awesome and terrifying, provoking in the builder disgust just as much as pride. One minute he is mighty, with his bird's eye view and 600 convicts working under him; the next he is languishing in a Stalinist prison designed by his own father. His bold plans for remaking the fabric of society seem to radically depart from anything ever done before, yet they merely introduce "a modified system of inequalities in place of older systems."3 Both the provincial East European city and its builder seem inextricably tied to the same fate. Indeed, at the [End Page 635] root of his delirious wanderings is the awareness that he—like any of his drawings—is also a product of planning. This paradox of feeling power and powerlessness, ambition mixed with resignation, pride with pessimism, while being in control of everything yet seemingly ruled by the terms of others, pervades the mind of the city builder, just as it does the system around him.

Taking a cue from two rigorous and insightful books—Stephen Bittner's account of the "many lives" of the Soviet Thaw and Greg Castillo's study of the Cold War as a series of battles in design and the domestic sphere—as well as a recent explosion of interest among historians in the Khrushchev era, "spatial history," material culture, and East-West exchanges, this article addresses the paradoxes of the Thaw as exemplified in urban form.4 It argues for the interconnected nature of domestic, international, and Eastern bloc-level dynamics by viewing processes of the Thaw simultaneously from the angles of neighborhood, city, and empire.5 These angles capture the evolving relationship with the Soviet past, the expansion of the Cold War into everyday city life, and the burgeoning exchange in knowledge, technology, and planning instruments among socialist countries. More suggestive than prescriptive, the choice of these three levels of analysis does not imply that the concomitant processes were discrete from one another.6 Indeed, a number of threads run throughout the essay: local battles over the meaning of socialist material culture, with their unexpected turns and twists; the participation of socialist planning in an international arena; but also, equally important, the earnest effort to devise a common planning model and architectural vocabulary across socialist space. The resulting "socialist design" was an amalgam produced by formal and informal exchange, an institutionalized logic of planning, invention, and imported technology, but also a self-induced competition with the capitalist West. Bittner's work, reviewed in the first section of this article, elucidates the domestic dilemmas of the Soviet [End Page 636] Thaw. Castillo's analysis, taken up in the middle section, sheds light on the transnational entanglements of a Cold War battle over consumption and design supremacy. My third section examines an architectural episode in Moscow in 1958 to argue for both the relevance and the specificity of the "Eastern bloc arena" in these international postwar currents.

The context is Khrushchev's Thaw, the decade or so after Stalin's death, which has produced everything from detailed studies on Khrushchev's personality to analyses of the post-Stalin succession struggle, the release of Gulag prisoners, the tumultuous year 1956, and on to studies of de-Stalinization, state designs, and domesticity.7 From the onset, the Thaw became associated with the cultural realm. Yet in contrast to foreign policy, culture, in Nancy Condee's words, "could tolerate no peaceful coexistence."8 She concludes that the Thaw was "not about the...


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